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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Land Use Taxes

Air Date: Week of

It's no secret that unspoiled land is often destroyed in this country, usually for someone's financial gain. Unfortunately, state tax laws often encourage this destruction. Commentator Andy Wasowski tells us why.


CURWOOD: When unspoiled land is irrevocably destroyed, it's usually at the hand of humans and almost always for a financial gain. Commentator Andy Wasowski says it doesn't help that in many communities some tax laws provide incentive for this destruction.

WASOWSKI: A while back my wife and I were visiting a friend's ranch in the beautiful Texas hill country southwest of San Antonio. One day my wife looked out the window and called to me. "Come here!" she said. "You want to see a rape in progress?" I looked out and saw a bulldozer working its way up, down, and around this hill about a quarter mile away. It was clearing out a forest of juniper trees and leaving scraped earth in its wake.

"What you're seeing," explained our hostess, "is a fine example of bad legislation." What she meant was, the state tax laws encourage this kind of destruction by offering tax breaks for clearing the land and turning it into pasture. The irony is that that land would never be pasture. It was far too steep for cattle and the soil was too thin to grow grass. And without those junipers the soil would erode away.

Now, that rancher isn't a bad person. He just saw an opportunity to save on his taxes and he took it. My own in-laws even benefitted from similar tax laws. Back in the mid-60s they purchased 180 acres of mixed wood forest and meadow in east Texas. They were told that if they planted commercial pine trees in the meadow, they'd get substantial tax savings. So they did. And a once healthy and thriving 40-acre meadow habitat was turned into an environmentally sterile tree farms with hundreds of slash pines lined up like cadets. Back in those days few of us were thinking about conservation. Besides, it would take a saint to say, "Thanks, but forget those tax savings. I'll just preserve the landscape and pay through the nose for the privilege."

The point is that too many states have antiquated tax laws that encourage the degradation of the land and discourage conservation. But there is hope. In Texas there are now several new programs offering tax incentives for the protection and restoration of natural lands. And in North Carolina, their recently revised tax laws are widely regarded as models for other states to follow. Similar legislation is currently pending in other states, including Delaware, Colorado, Hawaii, and Wisconsin. But the truth is, many of them don't seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, all too often conservation is still an uphill battle.

CURWOOD: Commentator Andy Wasowski lives in the forests of northern New Mexico, and is coauthor of the book Native Gardens for Dry Climates.



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